Archive for July, 2010

Finland: Helsinki and getting home

July 25, 2010

We flew from Oulu to Helsinki to spend a few days. We have previously crashed with E.’s sister Lissu while in Helsinki, but we always felt bad about crowding in there with our luggage and taking over her sofa, so this time we decided to stay at a hotel and not get in her hair. We found a good offer at Hotel Torni, a hotel in the center of Helsinki, only a few blocks from the central train station, which is the hub of public transportation in the city.

Helsinki by night

A view of Helsinki from the top floor of our hotel

The hotel was built in the early twentieth century in art nouveau style and has lots of beautiful period details. When we checked in they offered us a choice of a modern-style room or a restored art nouveau room; we gladly chose the art nouveau room and were charmed with its decoration.

Wall painting

The painted wall of our hotel room, with a happy little squirrel and butterfly

Cieling woodwork

Deocrative woodwork on the cieling of our room

We spent much of our days in Helsinki shopping. Lots of stores had big sales, including Stockmann, the main upscale department store, and Hemtex, a home goods (mostly textiles) store. You’d think that in this age of globalization you’d find pretty much the same things in stores in Helsinki as you would in New York or Boston, but there was a very noticeable difference, and not just the presence of iconically Finnish things like Moomins and Marimekko patterns, but even the color palette. E. is very particular about her color choices and we’ve had a very difficult time finding just the shade of blue that she likes in stores in the States: a moderate grayish blue. But looking around in Helsinki we found a variety of nice home textiles in good colors. I, as always, had to go shopping for licorice and was able to find a good price after looking in a few different stores.


We also paid a visit to the National Museum to enjoy the cultural history collections

We spent many of our evenings with Lissu, which was wonderful. We met up with her for dinner after her work day and thoroughly enjoyed her company.

With Lissu

Enjoying time with Lissu

We also met up with two couples, old friends of E., both of whom now have young children. This trip turned out, rather unexpectedly, to be full of small children. We ended up feeling rushed and wishing that we had a few more days to spend in Helsinki, so in future years we may make more time to spend there.

We flew home again by way of New York. We had a rather tight connection to make in New York, but we managed it. Flying into New York we could see lots of brown, dead grass and when we landed the air was unbearably hot. In Boston it was just the same– hot, parching air and dry, brown grass everywhere. When we got home we found that half our lawn was brown, but at least that meant that it wasn’t overgrown and in desperate need of mowing. We were able to wait a couple of days before mowing until we got a cool, dry morning to do it in.

Every time we travel to Finland it seems to get a little easier and smoother. Even having to travel through New York, this trip was no exception. Everything is familiar now and much of the process of travel is routine. It is a comfortable pattern to be able to slip back into and it hardly felt like a year since we last made the trip.


Finland: Lake Oulu and Kärsämäki

July 19, 2010

We rented a car in Oulu and drove up along the Oulu River to Lake Oulu (Oulujärvi). Lake Oulu is a large lake in the interior. It has several islands in it, the largest of which, Manamansalo, has a national park. At the park we met up with E.’s sister Leena and her fiancee Tiina. Leena and Tiina have a couple of German shepherds and brought the younger one, Raineri, to walk with us in the park.

Raineri swimming

Raineri fetching a stick from the water

We followed a walking trail that ran along the shores of the lake, stopping occasionally where we could go down the rather steep banking to the waters edge to dangle our toes and throw sticks for Raineri.

On the beach with Leena

Erik and Leena on the shore of the lake

The Finnish forest reminds me very much of Maine, although there are differences. The trees do not grow as big (at least in the north), and the undergrowth is distinctly different. Despite that, walking through pine woods by the shores of a lake made me feel very much at home.

The shores of Lake Oulu

The shores of Lake Oulu

After enjoying our walk in the woods, we followed Leena and Tiina to their home outside of Kärsämäki, a town a couple hours’ drive south of Oulu. They live in a lovely old farmhouse in the countryside outside of town.


The house

It was a hot, sweaty day and they heated up the old wood-burning sauna in one of the outbuildings.


One of the outbuildings (although not the one with the sauna in it)

Tiina made a vihta, a traditional implement made from a bundle of supple young birch branches used for sprinkling water on yourself in the sauna.


A vihta. Or vasta. The word vihta is used in western Finland, vasta in eastern Finland. Oulu sits right at the border between the dialect regions, so both words are used. Tomayto, tomahto.

We enjoyed the sauna in pairs and had a good dinner with Leena and Tiina. We spent the night there with them and the next day drove back to Oulu to get a flight down to Helsinki.

Finland: Oulu

July 14, 2010

I have learned from experience that after travelling to Europe it takes me about three days to get my sleeping patterns back on track, and we were only in Oulu for four days, so most of the time I was falling asleep and waking up at odd hours, but the nice thing about going to Finland in the summer is that even if I’m awake at all odd hours of day and night, the sun is up regardless and keeping an odd schedule isn’t so strange. I was still able to be sociable when I was awake and enjoy the place and the people there. E. and I enjoyed many morning walks into the center of town and back. One of the really wonderful things about Oulu is the extensive network of walking and bicycle paths that run all throughout the city.

Oulu landscape

A view of Oulu center in the morning

We visited with E.’s parents who once again very graciously made room for us in their apartment. I’m afraid we may be becoming too much of a burden on them and perhaps in future years we should look for other accommodations so as not to be in their way so much, but they have always been very kind hosts to us.

We also paid a visit to E.’s youngest brother Ville in the apartment he is now sharing with his girlfriend. They introduced us to a new video game: Band Hero. The game has special controllers that simulate playing a guitar or drums and a microphone for singing. To play the game, you “play” and sing along with famous rock songs, matching rhythm and chords. As weird as it sounds, it was strangely fun, and the four of us played together, taking turns to pass the different instruments around.

We also spent a lot of time visiting with E.’s other brother and his wife and their two children, our niece and nephew. Our niece, Aino, is now two and a half years old. When we saw her last summer she was just starting to talk. Now she is chattering away very happily– even I was able to understand her most of the time. She is an adorable child, full of life and energy.

Our niece

Our niece

To my surprise, she seemed especially taken with me and wanted to show me all her toys and wanted me to play with her. When it was time for her to have dinner, she wanted me to feed her, so I sat by her and fed her porridge and applesauce. I had expected her to be shy of me, a stranger who looks and sounds funny and can’t speak or understand the language as well as the rest of the family around her. I don’t know why she latched on to me, but it was very sweet of her.

Playing with my niece

Playing with our niece

Our nephew, Matias, is only about six months old now. He is just barely starting to push himself up on all fours and can wriggle around on the floor on his belly, but hasn’t quite gotten to crawling yet.

Our nephew

Our nephew

Already, he is very different from Aino. Where Aino is bubbly and energetic, Matias is quiet and calm. He has a wonderful sunny smile and generally gives the impression of being thoroughly contented with the world and everything around him.

Our nephew

Our nephew, sitting on his grandfather's lap

It will be fascinating to watch those two grow up, even from a distance.

Finland: getting there

July 10, 2010

We’ve flown to Europe on many different airlines and through many different cities, but we’ve found Finnair’s direct flights to Helsinki to be the most comfortable, reliable, and convenient. When you’re facing a 24+ hour day of schlepping luggage around, changing time zones, and fitting yourself into cramped seats in between dueling bawling babies, even a small difference in comfort, reliability, and convenience makes a big difference, so we prefer to fly by Finnair if we can. Unfortunately, Finnair has stopped flying to Boston (boo!), so we couldn’t take a direct flight from Logan to Helsinki as we’ve done in the past couple of years. Instead, we had to fly from Boston to New York (boo!) in order to get the Finnair direct flight to Helsinki.

When we boarded the Finnair flight, we were delighted to discover that we were on a fresh new plane with a new in-flight entertainment system. Rather than just showing a couple of movies on screens around the cabin, each seat had its own screen where you could choose for yourself from a few dozen different movies and episodes of numerous tv shows to watch at your own leisure. It made for a much more enjoyable flight. Less happily, we found ourselves seated directly in font of one baby and just back and to the right of another, both of whom had numerous crying fits over the course of the flight. Still, all in all it was a smooth, pleasant flight and were both in good spirits when we arrived in Helsinki.

The Finnish landscape

The Finnish landscape seen from above, with a Finnair wing

We had to wait a little while to get our flight up to Oulu. While waiting we had some delicious salmon soup in an airport restaurant. By the time we got to Oulu, we had been going for one very long day and both went straight to bed. We woke up a little while later to have some more food, and then went back to bed again.

Out of the sauna, into the fire

July 9, 2010

We have just returned from our usual summer trip to Finland. People keep telling me that the Finnish summer is cool and rainy, but I simply don’t believe it. Every single time I go to Finland in the summer, it is sunny and hot, and this was no exception. Temperatures were consistently in the low to mid 80s F, and we saw only a few passing showers (although some of them came with impressive thunder and lightning shows). We came home to temperatures near 90 F, half the lawn parched brown, and an oppressive humidity hanging in the air but not coming down.

There will be more details soon, but the highlights include the beautiful Finnish landscape under the midnight sun, excessive amounts of good food, and dear sweet lord in heaven where did all these children come from all of a sudden?!